Thursday, July 31, 2008

McLuhan Reconsidered

If you're of a certain age, you undoubtedly passed through a Marshall McLuhan phase. When it was published in 1967, "The Medium Is The Massage" struck like an intellectual thunderbolt. It was hotly debated and nervously dismissed, but soon we were all talking, ironically or not, about "the global village" and how "the medium is the message."

Time may, as the say, heal wounds, but it exposes gaping great holes in social commentors' logic.

Re-reading the hot book du jour, say, 30 years later gives you a much better appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.

Some such books, such as Charles A. Reich's "The Greening of America" turn out to be a tissue of weaknesses surrounding gaping wounds when read outside the moment. Others are more substantial, although few of them survive the aging process without suffering some damage. Even the most perceptive social critic, after all, is unlikely to get everything right.

Read in this light, Marshall McLuhan's work is very much a mixed bag. Some of McLuhan's insights are striking, some are worth pondering and some were obviously wrong when McLuhan wrote them.

McLuhan's central insight, that society is being shaped by the media used to express ideas stands up well. Indeed, it has become a commonplace. Some of his surrounding insights are off-the-wall brilliant and some of them are simply off the wall. For example the notion that children learn the alphabet by osmosis without being taught was obviously untrue in 1968 -- as any primary school teacher could have told Prof. McLuhan.

So, is there value in the exercise of re-reading MitM (as its aficionados took to calling it), other than promoting a shallow sense of superiority at how much we know better? I think there is.

One of McLuhan's problems was that he was writing too early. If he had written his book in 1977 rather than 1967, it would have been a very different work and, I think, a much more valuable one.

That decade saw the birth and early growth of the personal computer. By 1977, the internet and a few of the changes it wrought could at least dimly be sensed.

It turned out that the defining medium for the late 20th century and early 21st century was not television and radio, although they were important, it was the computer and the associated internet.

Prof. McLuhan intuited some of those changes, but, ironically, he didn't understand the mechanism by which they would come about. Or the depth to which the new media would allow them to run.

More significantly, he misunderstood some of the fundamental developments because the media he was dealing with were largely heirarchical. Information in electronic form still flowed from the top down, or through a series of gatekeepers. True, phenomena like the underground press had begun to break that down, but it was still a top-down world when it came to communication.

There was truly, in the words of the Bob Dylan quote McLuhan included in MitM "Something is happening, but you don't know what it is, Do You Mister Jones?"

And we didn't. Not even McLuhan.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On the dangers of the internet

Since one of the themes of this blog is that history tends to recapitulate, I wasn't surprised to be reminded that the attitudes toward the web and other new media are reflected in attitudes toward other "new" media in the past.

I was, however, mildly surprised to find a statement of the "problem" as far back as Socrates. To wit:

"The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to external written characters and not remember of themselves. . . You give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things and have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing."
-- Socrates, "Phaedrus"
Quoted by Marshall McLuhan in "The Medium Is The Massage"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On the "decline" of reading

A recent study notes with alarm that young people are spending less time reading and more time on the internet -- where the primary form of interaction is: Reading

Hmmm. Reading counts for less because it's on a screen than on a printed page?

Let's face it. If you can't read fairly well you're going to have trouble using the internet, even to play games. And as we all know reading is a skill that improves with practice.

So logically. . .

But this is the evil old internet. Good things _can't_ be coming out of it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Goodbye Newspapers

The web is full of stories recently about the coming demise of newspapers. This doesn't surprise me for a lot of reasons, but it does make me sad.

I started out in newspapers. I cubbed at a suburban daily and finished my career as the energy reporter for the largest daily in the state. In between I worked for a wire service and was managing editor of a small daily. If I hadn't had a crazy boss and an offer for a lot more money to do PR I would probably still be working for newspapers today.

-- If there were any jobs, that is.

Even when I started, I knew newspapers were dying. The big metro dailies were disappearing and more and more cities were becoming one-newspaper towns. The suburban papers were flourishing, but even there you could see signs as television and free shoppers cut into their advertising revenue. Still, I stuck with it for as long as a could because journalism was a high moral calling and besides, it was fun.

To this day, I think newspapering is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

But the newspapers as I knew them are dying. Circulation is dropping as other media steal their audience and advertising is dropping even faster. Costs are soaring for everything from paper to printing presses. Worse, the bean counters are firmly in control and they're applying their sovereign remedy for any industry in trouble -- cut costs and to hell with product, the future or anything else.

Beyond this, journalism today faces a whole series problems with its basic business. Bluntly, old style journalism of all sorts is too easy to manipulate and people from all parts of the political spectrum are manipulating like hell. That, combined with smaller staffs and lack of competition is making the news is newspapers less reliable.

That's a real shame because there are some places where the new media haven't yet picked up the slack, and perhaps never will. There are some stories that require the kind of access an accredited (read: employed) reporter can have and the general public doesn't. As a member of the public try calling the governor's office for background on the latest state scandal.

I suspect this is going to change, just as we will continue to have newspaper like things out there. Some of them will be essentially lifestyle, obits and meeting notices. Some of them will be serious sources of news, probably web-based. But none of them will be newspapers.

And that's sad.

This doesn't mean that things

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Some of you may have been following the tale of the teenage girl who was tricked by a phony Facebook ID and committed suicide when her "friend" turned against her.

It turned out the mother of an acquaintance of hers was involved and set up the phony Facebook profile. The woman has now been charged.

However before that happened, the mother's identity was revealed and she and her family were the objects of a campaign of hate mail, death threats and such, much of it coming over the internet from out of town.

Some people have seen this as an example of the dangers of the internet. I see it as an example of community response to an incident they disapproved of. In other words, the only new thing is the internet and that doesn't change much.

People have always reacted negatively to incidents they feel broke social barriers. A few of them took it to extremes. Two hundred years ago they'd throw rocks through your window -- or if they were really angry they'd burn your barn. Having been the editor of a small town daily newspaper, I can tell you that things haven't changed much there -- except now there's glass in the windows to break and they set your car on fire.

The point I see in this is that human behavior doesn't change that much, with or withour the internet. Most of the people who blame these kinds of things on the internet don't understand how they worked before the internet.